Vappu celebrates work and solidarity ­– even during the Coronatide

Mikko Jakonen, the chair of Jytte, and the chairs of the other personnel associations of University of Jyväskylä reflect on the nature of vappu and the way Finnish university workers have outdone themselves during spring 2020 in this May Day greeting published in Jytte’s blog. 

This year vappu takes place under the most unusual circumstances. In Europe, May Day has been celebrated for centuries in a variety of ways. The festivities have commemorated the arrival of spring, the end of winter, and the preparation for the strenuous farm work of the upcoming summer. Contemporary celebrations still include delicacies stemming from this long tradition. Mead is a prime example.

The first of May was established as a holiday in 1890. The Second International of socialist and labour parties (1889 – 1916) decided in 1889 that the day should commemorate the 1886 U.S. national strike that urged American workers to observe an eight-hour day and the workers killed during the so-called Haymarket affair in the aftermath of the strike. Ever since, May Day has been celebrated around the world as Workers’ Day or Labour Day – or in Finland as vappu. The aim has been to highlight the social value of all labour and to remind us of workers’ rights to reasonable work conditions and living wage.

On a normal spring, a day off with a picnic of sparkling wine and traditional foods is a welcome refreshment. In the academia, the end of April marks the end of semester as well as the planning and marking of entrance exams, teaching, research, supervision, and work on next year’s funding applications. Families with children are reminded that there is one more month of school left. In Jyväskylä, the main sites for festivities have been Harju, Kirkkopuisto, and Lounaispuisto, the end point of the traditional labour movement march. These are nice places to meet colleagues and fellow townspeople. Vappu brings us together and enables us to disagree and discuss even difficult social issues in good spirits.

Celebrating labour in a state of exception

The corona spring of 2020 has brought us face to face with an unprecedented state of exception. The rapidly spreading virus has caused anxiety, fear, and suffering around the world. It has forced societies to resort to social distancing, which is currently the only way to control the pandemic. National borders, restaurants, cafés, schools, and universities have been shut down. In many European countries people have spent weeks indoors and in Finland outdoor activities have required maintaining safe distances. The whole world awaits a vaccine and for the first wave of the outbreak to pass. After a few months, we are slowly starting to understand that there might be no return to “normal” and that no quick or easy solutions exist. We are faced with something extraordinary, and genuinely new situations always include a level of uncertainty. The social and economic effects will further increase the level.

In 2020 the message of Labour Day and the spirit of solidarity is even more pertinent than it has been in years. Those working in healthcare and education have been at the frontline, protecting our societies from this exceptional threat. The heroic acts of the Coronatide result from science-led planning and perseverance.

Healthcare and retail workers have risked their lives to help us and our duty in the academia is to ensure that the crisis does as little damage as possible to the two pillars of our society: research and education. Thus far, we have done amazingly well. Higher education has had little disruption, which is one of the true miracles of the Coronatide. The whole educational sector has leapt to digitalisation, which has required initiative, absorption, and dedication to teaching.

The academic teaching and supervision staff have carried an enormous burden in ensuring that courses are ran and degrees get completed. Administrators have done everything they possibly can to make things run smoothly under the circumstances while the digital services have provided the infrastructure that has enabled the whole process. Employees of the Open Science Centre have continued to assist students and researchers in multiple ways after the libraries were closed. From the very beginning, cleaners and porters have taken care that the university is a safe place to work in, and they make it possible for the doors to be reopened in the future. All the while, researches and professors have produced a significant amount of information for decision-makers and participated in public discussion even more than usual. Research into the effects of the pandemic has just begun. The virus does not only revolutionise the way we think about health, politics, and the economy, but it will affect almost all research.

We would not be able to make it without one another – solidarity in the confines of our homes

It is therefore clear that this spring, academics have been anything but idle. Quite the contrary. As in many other workplaces, we have made sure – working from home and mostly “behind the scenes” – that life goes on and can return to something akin to a normal situation as smoothly as possible. We have each other and the esprit de corps to thank for. It should go without saying that the creators of the miracle of the corona spring – that is us, the university employees – expect the employer to practice respectful personnel policy both during the crisis and after it.

Corona has shown that work on every sector is important. We would not be able to make it without one another. The crisis is a reminder of how we have spent one decade after another building a democratic society based on learning and solidarity. The crisis has revealed the fundamental structures of many societies in quite a brutal manner. Unlike in many other countries, in Finland these structures appear to be rather healthy. Therefore, the Coronatide does not only highlight the vital work of acute crisis management but it also reveals the decades-long groundwork conducted in different sectors. Therefore, especially now in the corona spring of 2020, vappu is a proper workers’ day.

This spring, vappu is celebrated remotely and in social isolation. It is obvious that despite the relatively good corona situation in Central Finland, we should not gather in the parks. Usually, vappu has been one of the few Finnish holidays celebrated in public, but this year there is every reason to break the tradition. All this only highlights the most important message of vappu, solidarity. We should contain ourselves in order to overcome the crisis with as little damage as possible and to keep safe the most vulnerable and those in the frontline of care. So, let us celebrate a virtual vappu, innovatively and with joy, from the confines of our homes. In the future, different types of celebrations will take place and an important new chapter can be added to the history of vappu: the memory of the solidarity that got us through the difficult times of the Coronatide.

Wishing you a Happy Labour Day,

Mikko Jakonen
Chair of JYTTE

Jaana Toomar
Chair of JYLL

Mika Lähteenmäki
Chair of the Jyväskylä chapter of the Finnish Union of University Professors

Tuula Hölttä
Chair of JYHY

Martti Lummukka
Chair of JYTT